Japan can be a wonderful delight of authentic and new experiences hard to replicate anywhere else. I stayed there for two months and still feel I have not seen enough. Nevertheless, I do believe I’ve had my share of moments which will last me a lifetime, or till I next visit the country at least. So here’s the best.
1. Relaxing in an Onsen and Staying in a Ryokan
A.K.A Hot springs. And a natural follow up to that is staying in a ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. I wasn’t gutsy enough to go to a public onsen but it was so completely relaxing that I can’t begin to describe it. And add to that the entire experience of staying in a ryokan, roaming around in the yukata and sleeping on a futon with straw mats (tatami) flooring all amidst the mountains of rural Japan. Pure Bliss. Even if you’re traveling to Japan in the summer months, you can still enjoy an onsen if you go to Hokkaido or the Japanese Alps!
2. Experiencing the (semi-) rural part of Japan
I ended up in Takayama for three days – one at the ryokan, one in Takayama center and one at Shirakawa go. The entire trip was chockful of firsts – my first time seeing snow & snowfall (courtesy of Shirakawago), the onsen which was a unique experience of its own and seeing the Japanese alps first hand. Even though it’s (sort-of) a village, there is so much in and around the city – a morning market along the banks of the Miyagawa river, Takayama old street, 60 year old huts in the Gassho Zukuri style, a Japanese eatery run by an old couple that serves vegetarian food and of course, shrines. When planning my trip, I had to choose between Takayama and the Fuji Five lakes but Takayama did not give me any time to think about what I might be missing. And if you add the white of the snow to the color palette, it was picture perfect.
3. Visiting a Temple Market
I was fairly lucky in the timing of my visit to Kyoto. There’s a flea market happening there at the Toji Temple on the 21st of every month, fill to the brim with the all-too-familiar Japanese crowd. And so much fun – there was food, kimono and all kinds of artefacts on sale. Though the experience was quite different from urban Japanese places, I found that walking the streets of Kappabashi, Tokyo, gave me a similar feeling (you’ll find katana and ceramic shops there instead of kimono ones which I personally find to be an acceptable trade).
4. Enjoying the season
I went around Japan when fall was in full phase, and that was a treat in itself. Then there is the cherry blossom season, which will be good eye candy too (or so the pictures tell me, never having seen it for myself). But even if your visit does not match a particular season, Japan has a number of festivals celebrating the coming and going of different seasons. The ones I’m most excited about are Wakakusa Yamayaki where they set Mount Mikasa, the entire mountain in Nara, alight; Sapporo snow festival in January/February which sports huge snow sculptures of different things (even Dearth Vader’s head); the festival float display at the Takayama festival both in spring and autumn. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see any of these first hand, but it’s definitely on my to do list. Another thing I’d recommend, especially during fall, is taking a walk around either Koyasan or Kurama Mountain (rail connectivity from Kyoto). Most of these look beautiful during autumn.
My best memories from the winters spent in Tokyo are of the splendid lights. A number of places put up winter illuminations which are breathtakingly beautiful. Not all of them are worth travelling a large distance, I’d say. But if there’s time to spare, they can be quite rewarding. There’s the Caretta Shiodome in Tokyo, Nabana no Sato and small light-ups near most of the major subway stations.
5. Souvenir shopping and Anime stuff!
Do I need say more? There is the One Piece Museum in Tokyo Tower, J-World in Tokyo, the anime themed rides in Disneyland and the Studio Ghibli Park. All of them can be amazing/meh depending on which fandom you belong to. But if you chose the right ones, you’ll sure as hell have a good time.
And then there is merch shopping in Akihabara. There is a flea market in Akihabara as well which sells anime merchandise at unbelievably low prices. And all of the multi storey Animate where you can just go and get lost.
I have no estimate of how much time I spent looking for affordable rates for stuff I had to buy – some were necessities like overcoats and other things required for my mental satisfaction, like a kimono, which I know I will not wear in my life ever, but still needed to buy just for the sake of it. Now Japan has a huge number of stores for buying second hand items, most of them in really good condition, even in some of the branded showrooms. And then there are the never-ending strangely animal themed souvenirs.
6. Watching the Tea Ceremony and Bunraku Theater
Or just getting a taste of macha in a traditional surrounding. I attended this twice. Once was a tea ceremony held by the Tea club in my college. They even taught us how to whisk macha ourselves and I just couldn’t get it right! This was where I got to see the complete tea ceremony (while having to sit on my toes for the entire duration).
The second time was when I went to visit a temple in Kyoto, where I got to see the Zen garden, do a bit of meditation and was invited to sit and sip green tea. No ceremony here, but the matcha was still wonderful.
I wasn’t able to see a Kabuki performance, but did manage to catch a Bunraku show (Puppet Theater). The puppets are around three-fourths the height of an average person and it requires three people to control one puppet – very different from the string puppet shows I’ve seen in Rajasthan. It was a pretty unique experience! There are national theaters in both Osaka and Tokyo which regularly stage Bunraku and Kabuki shows.
7. Taking a random walk to find hidden streets
The best part about Japan is, the country feels completely safe – even if you’re a girl walking alone in a street halfway through the night. I don’t remember many incidents where I felt unsafe no matter what the time of the day (or night). What this means is an endless possibility to explore. Rather than looking for destinations on google maps, I found myself choosing streets and areas and scouring through them at my leisure. With the land beneath my feet being Japan, there wasn’t much room for disappointment. More about Walking around in Osaka.
As much as I’d like to say that’s all, Japan has so much going on that the list may just never end. One thing which would be on many’s list will be food. Being a vegetarian, most of my survival in Japan was through Ice Cream (and bread), so won’t be much of a help there. What are the experiences you look forward to the most in your trip to Japan?